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God bless us, every one! Modesto's tree getting lights

UPDATE - Just hours after the city held its annual tree-lighting ceremony and didn't light a tree, city workers have begun decorating a live evergreen on a downtown plaza.

City spokeswoman Jessica Smart said union workers are kicking in the money to pay for the lights and other decorations on the tree at Modesto Centre Plaza.

The tree will be lit up in time for the annual holiday parade downtown Saturday evening, she said.

City officials played an inadvertent Scrooge on Thursday night, nixing decorations for the tree to save the cost of buying new lights.

Instead, officials in Centre Plaza, which is overseen by the city Parks Department, opted to place decorations on smaller trees.

That decision was not delivered up the line in City Hall, leading to an audience of underwhelmed elected officials.

Modesto sent out news releases advertising its annual tree-lighting ceremony, and City Council members came expecting to watch the evergreen blaze with Christmas spirit.

"Why in the world is there a tree-lighting ceremony when you're not lighting a Christmas tree?" asked City Councilwoman Kristin Olsen, who hosted the event.

Councilman Dave Lopez and City Manager Greg Nyhoff also were caught off guard.

"I didn't know until I stood there and the lights didn't come on. I was not pleased," Nyhoff said. "I think there are other ways we could've lit that tree."

Nyhoff said Centre Plaza has not had enough lights to fully decorate the tree in recent years. The city likely would've had to spend about $3,000 to get enough lights for the celebration.

He said the city could've found the money in its budget or turned to outside donors to make sure the tree shined as in years past.

Lopez said the tree lights were a poor choice for penny pinching. He and Olsen said they were disappointed they didn't hear about it before going to the ceremony.

"I can't imagine it would've saved the city that much money compared to the joy it would've brought kids," Lopez said.

Other cities across the country have been scaling back annual Christmas celebrations because of their tight, recession budget. Fresno isn't holding its annual tree-lighting ceremony, for example.

Modesto leaders say they're determined to put on a better show next year.

"We will find a way to light that tree," Nyhoff said.

Bee Assistant City Editor Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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